Virginia football has reached a turning point and this year could be special led by two 2020 NFL Draft prospects: Bryce Hall and Bryce Perkins.
The Virginia Cavaliers football program has experienced remarkable improvement recently, particularly in 2018. Led by a slew of NFL Draft prospects, this improvement was celebrated with the program’s first winning season since the 2011 campaign, ending with an 8-5 record and a 28-0 victory over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl.
Surely a step in the right direction, but it was also a season that could have had an even higher level of success in retrospect with three of Virginia’s five losses coming by four points of less. But still, 2018 marks a turning point for the Cavaliers program, significantly raising expectations around the team this offseason.
The question is, who do we credit for such a remarkable turnaround? Surely former BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall deserves much of the credit. After going just 2-10 in his first season as the head coach for the Cavaliers, the program has had steady improvement over each of the last two seasons.
On the field, though, there are two catalysts who can be looked upon as being the driving forces of this turnaround as well. Luckily, they both share the same first name and dominant presence while playing. These two players are, of course, All-American cornerback Bryce Hall and record-setting quarterback Bryce Perkins.
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While both players have a singular goal of turning things around in 2019, these young men have each taken much different paths in their journeys to Charlottesville.
Before Bryce Hall was commanding attention as possible the top cornerback in the 2020 NFL Draft, he was a two-way star for Bishop McDevitt High School in Wyncote, PA.
Over the course of his highly decorated career, Hall did some of his best work on the offensive side of the football, posting 137 career catches for 2,386 yards and 35 touchdowns. as a wide receiver. Those numbers were buoyed by his final season, where he accounted for 1,108 yards and 15 scores on only 54 receptions (20.52 yards per reception).
Despite those accolades, he was not rated higher than a three-star recruit by any of the major services. With just six reported Division I offers, Hall decided on the Virginia Cavaliers as his best fit long term and hasn’t looked back since.
After two solid seasons of production to begin his career, Hall turned in one of the top defensive seasons in school history. Hall led the nation in pass breakups (22) and was tied for the national mark in passes defended (24). As if those numbers weren’t enough, his performance was good enough for NFL evaluators to clamor for him to forego his final year of eligibility in favor of the 2019 NFL Draft. Of course, he declined the opportunity on his own accord.
“I started getting a lot of opportunities”, Hall said. “A lot of things went into me coming back. There are things I wanted to do and accomplish before I left. I wanted to learn to deal with the spotlight, be a better leader and live up to higher expectations.”
So just how high should the expectations be for a player who was just named All-ACC First Team and an All-American by six different publications? According to Hall, it is his own standards that he is focused on living up to.
“I don’t think too much about what the outside world says about me. I am focused on improving and moving forward, turning pass breakups into interceptions. There is so much I can get better at.”
And it didn’t take long for Hall to mention the one award that eluded him following the 2018 season.
“I’m hungrier than I have ever been. I’m striving for the (Jim) Thorpe award.”
After coming to the program at the beginning of the Mendenhall era in 2016, Hall has lived the rebuild. For the other Bryce (Perkins), he provided the spark to get it moving.
“Being around three different schools, multiple head coaches and offensive coordinators, different teammates from all over the map, it has taught me a big lesson on how to be a leader,” Perkins said. “We have so much talent here, and we are hungry. We want to win the Coastal.”
Perkins began his football career at Chandler High School, where he secured a four-star recruiting ranking by nearly every publication in the country. The highly talented dual-threat quarterback chose the in-state Arizona State Sun Devils as his first destination on this journey.
Viewed as the quarterback of the future for the Sun Devils, Perkins’ playing career soon took a detour during just his second year on campus. That stop ended with a freak neck injury during the 2016 season, putting his playing career in serious jeopardy.
After a long road to recovery, Perkins decided to give those football dreams another shot, landing in state at Arizona Western Community College (a junior college program). There, he experienced a resurgence that once again caught the attention of many Division I football programs.
And after experiencing the recruiting process for a second time, Perkins took a gamble and finally left the home state, landing with Virginia and Mendenhall. It didn’t take long for him to figure out Virginia was a whole lot different than the Copper State.
“It was different. I think it was snowing the first time I got out there,” Perkins said with a subtle laugh. “It ended up perfect, though. I’m thankful everyday for being a part of this family.”
It sure has worked out for Perkins. In just his first year with the program, he turned in one of the greatest seasons in Virginia history at the quarterback position. Aside from breaking multiple passing and total yardage records for the school, Perkins was just one of two players in the country to account for more than 2,600 passing yards and 900 or more rushing rushing yards on the season.
The other on that short list was last year’s Heisman Trophy winner and 2019 NFL Draft first overall selection by the Arizona Cardinals, Kyler Murray.
When asked about that type of success, Perkins was quick to put the focus on his teammates and coaches.
“It’s the supporting cast around me. The senior leadership in the wide receiver room and the running backs. The offensive line did a tremendous job and the coaches did a great job making it easier for me as a first-year starter.”
Wherever you put the credit, one thing is certain, Virginia football expectations are higher than they ever have been. It is now a long way away from that 2-10 record in Mendenhall’s debut season in 2016.
It’s hard to say what Hall’s expectations for the program were heading all the way back to his first year on campus in 2016. Fast-forward to 2019, however, and the goal for this team and program is quite clear.
“We want to be a top-25 defense. We want to win an Atlantic Coast Conference Championship. And if we do that, the sky’s the limit.”